Then we were in Italy, and still climbing. We saw a row of narrow, slattern cottages, their backs over the sea, and in front of them marched to and fro a magnificent soldier laced in gold, with chinking spurs and a rifle. Suddenly there ran out of a cottage two little girls, aged about four years and eight years, dirty, unkempt, delicious, shrill, their movements full of the ravishing grace of infancy. They attacked the laced soldier, chattering furiously, grumbling at him, intimidating him with the charming gestures of spoilt and pouting children. And he bent down stiffly in his superb uniform, and managed his long, heavy gun, and talked to them in a deep, vibrating voice. He reasoned with them till we could hear him no more. It was so touching, so exquisitely human!
We reached the top of the hill, having passed the Italian customs, equally vile with the French. The terraced grounds of an immense deserted castle came down to the roadside; and over the wall, escaped from the garden, there bloomed extravagantly a tangle of luscious yellow roses, just out of our reach. The road was still and deserted. We could see nothing but the road and the sea and the hills, all steeped, bewitched, and glorious under the sun. The ship had nearly slid to Mentone. The curving coastline of Italy wavered away into the shimmering horizon. And there were those huge roses, insolently blooming in the middle of winter, the symbol of the terrific forces of nature which slept quiescent under the universal calm. Perched as it were in a niche of the hills, we were part of that tremendous and ennobling scene. Long since the awkward self-consciousness caused by our plight had left us. We did not use speech, but we knew that we thought alike, and were suffering the same transcendent emotion. Was it joy or sadness? Rather than either, it was an admixture of both, originating in a poignant sense of the grandeur of life and of the earth.
‘Oh, Frank,’ I murmured, my spirit bursting, ‘how beautiful it is!’
Our eyes met. He took me and kissed me impetuously, as though my utterance had broken a spell which enchained him. And as I kissed him I wept, blissfully. Nature had triumphed.
We departed from Mentone that same day after lunch. I could not remove to his hotel; he could not remove to mine, for this was Mentone. We went to Monte Carlo by road, our luggage following. We chose Monte Carlo partly because it was the nearest place, and partly because it has some of the qualities—incurious, tolerant, unprovincial—of a capital city. If we encountered friends there, so much the better, in the end. The great adventure, the solemn and perilous enterprise had begun. I sent Yvonne for a holiday to her home in Laroche. Why? Ah, why? Perhaps for the simple reason that I had not the full courage of my convictions. We seldom have—nous autres. I felt